Military Destroys a Village to Maintain 'Momentum' in Afghanistan

The Taliban-infested town was obliterated with 25 tons of bombs.

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Back in October, the military apparently wiped an Afghan village off the face of the Earth because it was too far gone to save. The story was reported this week. Taliban had run the civilians out of town and so thoroughly booby-trapped the village, Tarok Kolache, that troops felt entering it meant "certain death," Paula Broadwell writes at Foreign Policy. The commander of the Combined Joint Task Force 1-320th, Ltc. David Flynn, said the only way he could give his guys confidence to enter the area and not "lose momentum" was just to bomb the hell out of it.

On the bright side, they are now rebuilding the place. "I literally cringed when we dropped bombs on these places--not because I cared about the enemy we were killing or the HME destroyed, but I knew the reconstruction would consume the remainder of my deployed life," Flynn told Broadwell, a former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus. And in the months since the October bombing, Flynn's team has worked on replanting the pomegranate orchard and rebuilding infrastructure. Villagers will be compensated for their lost houses.

Broadwell and Flynn say there were no civilian casualties because the Taliban had forced villagers from their homes. But the bombing raises troubling questions about our counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan, which is supposed to value protecting civilians--and earning their trust--above all else.

  • An 'Irony for Petraeus,' Wired's Spencer Ackerman writes."Some observers already fear a backlash brewing in the area. ... It seems difficult to understand how Broadwell or the 1-320th can be so confident they didn’t accidentally kill civilians after subjecting Tarok Kolache to nearly 25 tons worth of bombs and rockets. The rockets alone have a blast radius of about 50 meters [164 feet], so the potential for hitting bystanders is high with every strike." Ackerman adds that if "Tarok Kolache is to become a new model for the military in Afghanistan, then it's quite an irony for Petraeus, the military's chief counterinsurgency theorist-practitioner, to swing the pendulum in the direction of decimating whole villages."
  • How Does This Maintain Momentum? Gawker's Max Read asks. "Even if there were truly no civilian casualties, at least one Afghan villager wasn't particularly pleased—he accused Flynn of 'ruining his life after the demolition.' He likely wasn't the only one, and there isn't a lot of room to spare when it comes to Afghan impressions of NATO forces in Arghandab, where locals trust the Taliban over Karzai." Regarding the plans to rebuild, he writes: "you have to wonder how diverting so many resources to rebuilding a village you just blew up aids the 'momentum' originally sought."
In other words, rather than actually clearing the village—not just chasing away the Taliban but cleaning up the bombs and munitions left over—the soldiers got lazy and decided to destroy the entire settlement… 'to give the men confidence.' ... Look, war is hell. I have no illusions about that. But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable. There were rumors of this policy of collective punishment in the Arghandab before ... and I’m really struggling to see how such behavior does not violate Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—that is, how this behavior is not a war crime, especially given the explicit admission that such behavior is merely for the convenience of the soldier and not any grander strategy or purpose.
  • Expect More Villages to Be Destroyed, Ackerman writes in a follow-up post. He talked to Petraeus' spokesman, Col. Erik Gunhus, who defended the bombing by explaining that whole neighborhoods were emptied of people and booby-trapped, so it the Taliban was "forcing" the military to take such measures. "Tarok Kolache might be an extreme example," Ackerman writes, but reports have indicated in recent months that the U.S. is "destroying homes it believed to be riddled with Taliban bombs. ... Some human-rights researchers are of two minds about the demolitions." One expert explained that while the massive destruction of property is bad, so are booby-trapped towns.
  • A Bad Sign for the U.S., Joshua Foust adds in his own followup. Noting Ackerman's interview with Petraeus's official spokesman, he writes, "Put less charitably, Petraeus is admitting the Taliban is setting the pace of operations, setting the terms of engagement, and forcing the U.S. to engage in property destruction. Classic insurgent tactics, in other words. It is not encouraging."
  • We're Making Progress, Ltc. Flynn responds on Foreign Policy.
We now live with our ANA brothers in the sanctuaries occupied by the Taliban this past summer. The people of these villages, once terrorized by the Taliban, are beginning to return to their lands with cautious optimism of the future. The ALP is part of our overall strategy to prevent the re-emergence of the Taliban in the District in the upcoming Spring. We too are cautiously optimistic that this District will return to the favorable conditions not of 2008 but of 2007 prior to the untimely death of the Alikozai tribal elder whose loss created the power vacuum for the Taliban to wreak havoc for the local population for the past 3 years.
  • Aren't Those Villagers Lucky? Jacob Davies writes sarcastically at Obsidian Wings. "Luckily for them, we have brought our best planners to their village and substantially improved its livability using the latest in high-explosive remodeling techniques. ... Best of all, they can now enjoy the benevolent authority of the most corrupt government in the world instead of those nasty, nasty Taliban who made life so unlivable."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.